Contemporary Landscape Photographers Capture Far More Than Nature’s Beauty
Like the Romantic painters of the 19th century, who used lush landscapes to represent deeper philosophical notions, landscape photographers are often portraying far more than beautiful terrain.
Photographers have captured the land to evoke metaphor, capture the sublime, toy with tradition, reveal conflict, and warn us about our impact on the natural world. They have long grappled with our relationship to the Earth. Ansel Adams, arguably the most famous landscape photographer of the 20th century, used the splendor of his beloved High Sierra to plead for our care of nature. And contemporary photographers have furthered the medium, exploring new concepts and formats that often deal with both beauty and critical contemporary issues. Here, we highlight 20 contemporary photographers exploring the deeper meanings of landscape photography, organized thematically.
Landscapes of conflict
While photojournalists show areas of conflict through unflinching views of war, fine-art photographers capture the tension inherent in such terrain: the beauty of the land and its unsettling history.
Misrach’s airy, colored compositions of deserts in the American West show hints of human presence that evoke the stories of migrants: tire tracks, water jugs, and stretches of border wall.
Lê’s own personal experience fleeing Vietnam as a child in 1975 in an American military transport plane colors her work. Her black-and-white series “Viêt Nam” (1994–98) pictures the modern landscapes of her native country, steeped in her memories of the war, while “Events Ashores” (2014) follows the American military in non-combat situations with dreamlike hues. “My life has been completely affected by American foreign policy,” Lê told The New Yorker in 2014. “They were the perpetrators, but they were also the saviors.”
Irish photographer and filmmaker Richard Mosse employs lush color in an often unsettling way. Using infrared film for his “Infra” series (2010–11), which focuses on the war between the Congolese army and rebels, Mosse transforms the green and brown foliage of the land into vivid pinks and reds. With armed men and women in military fatigues against the candy-colored trees, Mosse’s images suggest an otherworldly landscape beleaguered by human strife.
American artist Trevor Paglen, too, balances unease and beauty. Paglen creates painterly compositions that look like star trails, gradient skies, and hilltop retreats, but in reality, they’re black sites, offshore prisons, drones, and satellites shot with astro-telescopic lenses. Has government surveillance ever looked so ethereal?
Few places in the world are left untouched by humankind, so photographers who seek the sublime must consider how our presence affects the magic of the land. American photographer David Benjamin Sherry works in the tradition of Adams, showing the allure of the American West’s national parks in large-format film as an appeal to conserve them. However, while Adams was a black-and-white purist, Sherry uses intensely saturated monochromatic hues of yellow ochre, turquoise, and indigo to challenge the traditions of landscape photography.
American photographer Vanessa Marsh oscillates between glittering black-and-white night skies and hazy cotton-candy sunlight in two of her bodies of work. The former, “Everywhere All At Once” (2012–present), uses a combination of photography, drawing, and darkroom techniques to show the vast expanse of the universe above, concealed in part by the silhouettes of earthly things, like palm trees and power lines. “A lot of the works speak to a sense of isolation, how that isolation relates to the landscape, and how I find myself in that landscape—physically, metaphorically, spiritually,” she has said. For “The Sun Beneath the Sky” (2018–present), Marsh creates imaginary landscapes using cut paper and multiple exposures.
Shooting from above, Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky reduces the world to richly colored textures, like the ripples of rice terraces in China’s Yunnan Province and the stained glass–like salt pans in the American West. He organizes his scenes by subject: oil, quarries, water, and mines, as well as the Anthropocene. The last category, he has written, shows “the indelible marks left by humankind on the geological face of our planet.”
For more than three decades, Andreas Gursky has focused on both the grandeur of the natural world and man-made settings, including a technicolored 99-cent store and a sprawling Amazon warehouse. In the 1990s, Gursky became famous for his massive, hyper-detailed works created through digital manipulation. In his images, every tree, window, or product is in focus, creating a sense of awe through scale.
As a time-based practice, photography offers artists the ability to isolate a still moment from movement or chaos in the natural world. Japanese-born, New York–based photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto is known for his examinations of time. Also an architect, he’s inspired by the 20th-century Surrealists and Dadaists. He takes long exposures of seascapes until sea and sky are both gently blurred fields of grey, and seizes moments of calm from the frenzy of electricity.
For the latter body of work, Sugimoto used a generator to send up to 400,000 volts through his large-format film negatives onto a metal table to expose explosions of lighting onto the emulsion. Though taken indoors, the branches of white resemble trees or braided rivers, rendering powerful currents into moments of contemplation.
Recalling Sugimoto’s seascapes, Korean-born, New York–based photographer Jungjin Lee also relies on soft greys to inspire tranquility. In her work, the trees, skies, and land bleeding into one another are redolent of East Asian ink paintings. To achieve this effect, Lee hand-coats mulberry paper with light-sensitive emulsion to turn it into a photographic surface, then exposes scenes of winding roads, calm waters, and shadowy deserts onto the textured sheets.
Lee, who assisted famed photographer Robert Frank, has a deep love for the American Southwest’s arid lands. She captures the desert’s details in blacks and greys, as well as colorful monochromatic hues.
Emerging Seattle-based photographer Cody Cobb also finds solace in American deserts. Cobb meanders through the West for weeks at a time, contemplating stillness and isolation in his scenes, which emphasize striking colors and the geometry of the land. Cobb’s images can seem like portals to otherworldly landscapes—a concept that Italian artist Giovanni Ozzola takes a little more literally.
Ozzola is singularly fascinated by interior scenes that feature light-drenched windows or doorways to the outside world. The uncanny images are sometimes printed to scale, so that one can stand in front of the images and peer into the illusion of space.
When photographers bend the traditional rules of landscape photography, they can distort our perception of the world or guide us to greater understanding. For decades, Dutch artist Jan Dibbets has spliced images together to shift land and sky and sea. With Land 0° – 135° (2009), he does so literally—the series of 10 color images show a progressive rotation, so that the land eventually tips and becomes sky.
German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has photographed nearly every type of subject—from youth culture to domestic still lifes—but he often returns to the sea and the sky. In his series “Vertical Landscapes” (1995–present), he has effaced the boundaries between them, as well as those of day and night, and clouds and air. In 2016, he printed the series on posters to protest Brexit, showing that boundaries of horizon lines, which we perceive to be real, do not actually exist.
“Landscape paintings and photographs, which involve the sky, and to some extent the sea, are always close to abstraction,” he told The Guardian in 2013. “They are a framing of the unframable, of an infinite expanse, infinite until it hits the horizon.”
Through rephotographing or reprinting images, photographers can play with the surface of the picture itself. Japanese artist Daisuke Yokota shoots a range of subjects, including landscapes, on a point-and-shoot camera, then photographs the images multiple times to purposely degrade the image. He’s used other techniques, like treating the film with acid or boiling water, to similarly influence the original image.
American photographer Penelope Umbrico—who once arranged grids of tens of thousands of hyper-colorful found images of sunsets from Flickr—has also rephotographed images, but not her own. In “Range” (2012–present), she appropriates mountain scenes of the masters of photography andintroduces fake light leaks akin to camera-app filters like Instagram. “Light leaks and chemical burn filters are especially absurd in the context of both analog photography and smart-phone camera technology: ‘master’ photographers would never accept such mistakes in their work,” she has written. Instead of working with light as a mercurial and revered medium, apps use algorithms to produce effects in an automatic and limitless way.
As the human population swells, relentless development ensues, and the climate crisis worsens, our impact on the land is more visible than ever. Photographers chronicling the natural world are preserving memories of it as it increasingly disappears.
British photographer Nick Brandt asks: What happens when animals die out? For his body of work “Inherit the Dust” (2016), Brandt erected and photographed monumental, life-sized images of lions and elephants in developed areas to show how their habitats have been transformed.
His latest project, “This Empty World” (2018), shows staged scenes of animals in even more claustrophobic urban conditions. Brandt built partial sets, captured animals as they passed through, then completed the sets and cast people to fill the scenes. His collaged images show humans and animals living in disharmony.
Conversely, Brazilian documentary photographer Sebastião Salgado seeks out the idyllic, untouched nature that still remains. His eight-year ode to nature, “Genesis” (2013), shows the grandeur of flora, fauna, and indigenous people in black-and-white film, organized geographically. Though Salgado has said he is not an activist, his photos remind us of what’s at stake. “We are living in an important moment for our planet,” he has said. “The photographs are a way of sharing this historical moment.”
In the United States, the New Topographics movement began in 1975 with a seminal exhibition at the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York, showing landscapes altered by mankind. Robert Adams, a major figure of the movement, published multiple books in the 1970s and ’80s on the spread of suburbs and industrialization in Colorado, including The New West (1974) and Summer Nights (1985). In his series, Adams focused on both human development and the quietude of nature. “The goal,” he once said, “is to face facts but to find a basis for hope. To try for alchemy.”
American photographer Terry Evans has shared a similar ethos while capturing the American Midwest from above. Her aerial views show human presence—through water towers, weapons ranges, and cattle feedlots—becoming part of the textures of the terrain. “How else can we know where we fit in relationship to everything else in the world,” she has said, “but by seeing it with attention, concentrated sustained attention?”